Literary History Without Sexism? Feminist Studies and Canonical Reconception
How can we ensure that feminist revisionism of the last decade permanently alters the American literary canon? Having incautiously agreed to tackle that issue at the 1984 MLA, I experienced severe pre-convention jitters. First, I felt the usual compunctions of a male belatedly involved in feminist studies about to parade himself as an expert. Second, and more important, I felt perplexed about the question that the original question begs. Should feminist revisionism really seek to recreate canons? Or should it refuse to ally itself with the whole process of molding literary history into canons, on the ground that the very concept of canon implies a suspect authoritarianism, that a “new canon” in practice would likely represent a modest overlay of women’s writings on top of an essentially androcentric base?
This latter argument has been cogently pressed by Annette Kolodny in reaction to the projected Columbia and Cambridge histories of American literature. Given how tightly most of us are held by preestablished categories, Kolodny fears, and with reason, that the projects will not yield a revised conception of canon so much as the old canon plus a series of ghetto-chapters for the scribbling women, the local colorists, and so forth. I for one am acutely conscious of how limited a difference my study of women’s
“The Integrity of Memory: Creating a New Literary History of the United States,” American Literature, 57 (1985), 291-307. For editorial explanations of the two projects discussed by Kolodny, see Emory Elliott, “New Literary History: Past and Present,” American Literature, 57 (1985), 611-21; and Sacvan Bercovitch, “America as Canon and Context: Literary History in a Time of Dissensus, American Literature, 58 (1986), 99-108.
American Literature, Volume 59, Number 1, March 1987. Copyright 1987 by The Duke University Press. CCC 0002-9831/87/$1.50.